Windows 8: An exceptional OS undone by dreadful marketing

Given that Microsoft has left so much other traditional functionality in Windows 8, the removal of the Start menu is a marketing decision only. It's not like it's hard to code.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

There are a lot of words we're no longer supposed to use in polite company. For example, the words idiot, moron, even delusional aren't appropriate -- and for good reason. There are challenged, struggling people out there and using slang words about their condition as pejoratives is more than impolite, it's hurtful.

Likewise, there are many wonderful words of profanity we're definitely not allowed to use on a family show. The more flowery among us have learned to tone down our expressions, often using phrases like "the F word," "effin'", or even the one made famous by the pilots of Galactica, that last, great battlestar: "frak!"

As you might imagine, then, I find myself challenged when describing the decision to remove the Start menu from Windows 8. Good taste and compassion for my fellow man prevents me from using many words derived from the mental health community. Standards and practice prevents me from using words that would occur 20 to 30 times in a typical Saturday night, drunken TechCrunch rant.

But we're not TechCrunch. Here at ZDNet, we're analysts.

And that's why, in pure analytical terms, one has to wonder what went through the (fill-in-the-blank) (fill-in-the-blank) misguided brains of Microsoft's managers, analysts, and strategists when they decided to ditch the Start menu.

I finally decided to load the preview edition of Windows 8 and use it. And, despite the operating itself being a marvel of engineering, ease of use, speed, and underlyng functionality -- I'm forced to say that it's unusable for desktops out of the box. Un-frakin'-usable.

Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to side with @sjvn on this one? He's been naysaying Windows 8 all this time -- I even did a webcast opposite him -- and it turns out, at least from a UI perspective, that he's right. Bleeeeeep!

In the annals (anals?) of product design, this has to be one of the (fill-in-the-blank) poorest decisions ever foisted upon an enormous customer base.

The reasons, we've heard, are clear. The tablet market is eclipsing the desktop market -- at least for consumers. So, if a next-generation OS is going to be introduced, it has to work with tablets.

No problem. I'm with you there.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that many commuters decided that instead of buying new cars, they were going to buy new motorcycles. In days of rising fuel prices, it's not that hard to imagine. Oh, sure, riding a bike is a far different exercise than driving in a cage, but many of us have learned to do both.

The problem is that on a motorcycle the right pedal isn't the gas pedal, it's the rear brake. The left pedal is the shifter. The gas (throttle) is the right handlebar itself. Making things more fun, the front and rear brake control separately (don't brake too hard with the front brake, or you tumble. In any case, the brake isn't on the left pedal, the front brake is attached to the right handlebar, along with the throttle.

A motorcycle controls like a motorcycle, and is a completely different beast than a car.

Microsoft, on the other hand, has decided that -- rather than make some very minor interface nods to the billion or so users it has -- it's going to force everyone to change how they use their machines.

This is not change in a good way. It'd be as if Ford decided to yank out the typical comfortable interior of a car, and replace it with a motorcycle seat, handlebars, and control interface. One day, grandma would get up to go to work, get in her trusty Ford (which she's been happily driving for decades) -- and not know how to do anything!

Worse, since the motorcycle UI isn't designed for the inside of a car, using it there would suck. People have tried it, and it's amusing as an exercise, but it doesn't really work.

Windows 8's change to the Start menu is not amusing as an exercise. It's an insult to all the billions of Windows users the world wide.

Here's the thing. You get into Windows and it's Metro. You click the desktop tile because you have real work to do -- and you're stuck. How do you launch apps? There's no launcher or Start menu. If you don't know to click in the corner of the screen, you ain't doin' nothin'. There's no hint, no cue, no application, no Start menu. There's nothing there, there.

It's almost incomprehensible that this was allowed to happen.

As it turns out, if you do manage to click in the very small region at the corner of the screen, you'll get slammed back into the Metro interface. Well, at least it's something. I know this is confusing, but it's how you launch applications from the desktop now. You have to hunt for an unlabeled zone of the screen, click it very carefully, slam back into Metro, find what you want to launch, rinse, wash, and repeat.

Even Metro, though, sucks. As I said, there are no visual cues. If you click (again, in what appears to be an 8-pixel square region), you get a zoom out menu called "charms," and from there you might get to something useful. The real control panel isn't available from charms, but there's a sad replacement for it that will allow for some minor control.

When I first started a demo Metro app, I found myself in a blank screen, with no icons, visual cues, or menu items. Now, I've been using computers since the time of wooden ships, so I know to tap around and if something bad happens, I can always undo it. Besides, this was on a VM.

But many desktop users have been told, over and over again, not to click on things they don't understand. They've been educated to use what they've been told to use, and not go exploring into that folder marked System32.

These users will get Windows 8 and immediately experience brain freeze. "Upgrading" from any other Windows OS to Windows 8 will generate an immediate failure condition among experienced traditional users. The retraining at the corporate level will be astonishingly time-consuming and expensive.

What's worse, this new approach isn't better. We're all for better UIs that save us time and improve our flow. Even though some of us didn't like the Ribbon when it showed up, it was undeniable that many users responded well to it. It was a win.

Windows 8 is the opposite of the Ribbon. Instead of laying out everything users need, where they need it, Windows 8 takes away a lot of functions and a lot of visual clues.

Users will be lost.

I know, I know. The Microsoft product manager reading this will tell you that the Metro (we're not supposed to call it Metro anymore, in another feat of smart marketing) -- anyway, the Microsoft product manager will tell you that we'll eventually be using Metro-only apps and we'll love them.

No. No we won't.

Some users will, but there are many of us who need more than two Windows open, who do real work, who jump back and forth between five and even ten applications, who often have to do more than one complete job description at once, who need a real computer for real work, and chose Windows because it's up for the task.

We real-work users will undoubtedly forgo Metro like we skipped on Bob, and never really used the desktop gadgets Microsoft thought were going to be all the rage back in the early Windows 98 days.

The difference, though, between all those misguided attempts and this is that those attempts left essential functionality in the system.

With Windows 8, Microsoft purposely pulled out the Start menu, in a vindictive effort to force everyone into Metro. That's not going to fly. We'll all find replacements (I'll discuss that in a future article).

Given that Microsoft has left so much other traditional functionality in Windows 8, the removal of the Start menu is a marketing decision only. It's not like it's hard to code.

Windows 8 will probably still have some success. I'm less convinced now that I see how completely unusable it is for desktop users out of the box. This wasn't necessary and -- as such -- was a very, very bad decision.

Not all users and not all organizations will put up with "it can't be used" and buy thousands of copies. Many will just stick with Windows 7. Many more will just stay with Windows XP. Eventually, everyone will learn the right downloads to make Windows 8 usuable, but by then, the damage will have been done.

Microsoft better get Windows 9 out the door really fast -- and this time, better put UI design in the hands of usability experts rather than the marketing department. If you really envy Apple so much that you're going to try to force your users to do something, that something better actually be better.

Bleep! Expletive deleted. Bleepity-bleep-bleep. Frak!

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